Commit to Conservation Part 1: Setting the Stage – Aridity in California

In Part 1 of our 3-part series, Commit to conservationHeal the Bay Water Quality Scientist Annelisa explains how smart water practices like recycling and conservation can help secure the human right to water and the rights of nature, even as California becomes more arid.

MANY PEOPLE LIVING IN CALIFORNIA know drought all too well, because it seems that we are always in one. I was born and raised in California, so drought conditions have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I learned to turn off the tap while brushing my teeth, limit my showers to 5 minutes or less, and never waste a drop of water. Many California residents have gotten really good at conserving water when drought hits the headlines, but we’re not quite as sure why behind it all, so these good water practices often disappear as soon as it is raining. Unfortunately, one good rainstorm – or even a few – isn’t enough to end one drought, or prepare for the next. Drought cycles have always happened in California, and they continue to worsen as the climate crisis persists, in part due to a process called aridification it makes our dry years even drier. What we consider “normal” is constantly changing, and we still have dry spells on top of that. In this blog, we’ll begin to explore the why of all our conservation efforts and what it means for the future of water in Los Angeles.

A map of drought conditions in California, as of October 18, 2022. This map shows exceptional drought conditions (the highest level of drought severity) in the Central Valley. All of California experiences some level of drought, and the majority of California experiences severe, extreme, or exceptional drought conditions. Source: United States Department of Agriculture

Water management in Los Angeles

About 80% of LA’s water is imported hundreds of kilometers away Northern Sierra Nevada mountain the San Francisco Bay Mountain Range and Delta via the CA Aqueduct, the Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley via the LA Aqueduct, and the Rocky Mountains via the Colorado River Aqueduct. Most of this imported water starts out as snowpack in the mountains. In fact, California’s water system was designed so that the snowpack is our largest reservoir, the Sierra Nevada (which translates to snow-capped mountains in Spanish) alone containing 30% of the water in California. Snow accumulated in the winter, then slowly melted in the spring to fill reservoirs, recharge underground aquifers, and flow into our aqueducts so that we have water when we need it most in summer and winter. fall, at which time the cycle would begin again.

As we continue to draw water from critical ecosystems like the Bay Delta, Owens Valley and Colorado River Delta, which also need this snowmelt, we are removing the water that is is available locally. Even in dry weather, 10 million gallons of water flow through Los Angeles Storm Drainage System and towards the ocean every day just from untimely flow (e.g. broken sprinklers, washing cars, watering driveways). And then, when it rains, this flow increases with stormwater runoff, on average 100 billion gallons of water wasted each year, when it could instead be captured and used for beneficial purposes. In addition, hundreds of millions of gallons of treated water is rejected every day by our treatment plants. Some of this treated water flows to the ocean via rivers and streams, and at least some of this flow may be required to provide habitat critical to ecosystem health. But treated water that is discharged directly into the ocean has no beneficial effect.

To learn more about the LA Aqueduct and its effects on local people and ecosystems, watch The aqueduct between usrealized by AnMarie Mendoza of Gabrieleno-Tongva Tribe.

Water resources in Los Angeles change with the climate

Climate change is happening now. We see and feel the effects every day with record heat waves, floods, fire seasons and droughts. We are already experimenting with what is called whipping weather: Dramatic oscillations between extreme weather conditions. Climate change continues to intensify these fluctuations, so our dry years are hotter and drier, and our wet years are even more intense. More frequent dry years and warmer temperatures increase water demand (more water is needed to irrigate crops and landscapes), depleting water supplies. Evaporation also wreaks havoc by drawing water from reservoirs and even absorbing moisture from the earth, which weakens the health of the ecosystem and actually makes it harder for the earth to absorb water when ‘it is raining. Add longer, more intense droughts to this mix, and it’s clear that California is getting drier (or arid) over time. This process is called aridificationand the trend will only increase as human-accelerated climate change continues.

Low flow in the Colorado River, Credit: Vicki Devine / Center for Biological Diversity

Extremely low snowfall in California. Credit: Stephanie Elam / CNN

Despite this terrible news, it is still raining in Los Angeles. Looking ahead, we actually plan to get the same volume of rain locally on average as we have in recent history, but it will fall less often in heavier showers. In addition, our shrinking snow reservoirs are melting faster each year. We currently do not have the infrastructure in place to capture this higher level of runoff from intense storms and rapid snowmelt. All of this means that more water will flow back to the ocean rather than being stored as snow or seeping into groundwater reservoirs. Some people have suggested that more surface tanks would be the solution, but they are prohibitively expensive. Much of the stored water would be lost to evaporation, and quite frankly, we have already dammed most rivers in California. So we need to rethink our water management to make the most of the resources we have left.

Water management in Los Angeles must also change

Although we continue to experience aridification and climatic whiplash, we can still adapt to this hotter, drier future. To do this, conservation cannot just happen in response to a drought designation, but it must be a way of life. The good news is that there are local, lasting solutions that individuals can make at home (inside and out) and systemic changes we can push together to be careful with water.

We can source sufficient water locally to meet our water needs and significantly reduce our dependence on imported water. This can be done by improving water conservation/efficiency both regionally and at home, cleaning up groundwater, rainwater catchmentand wastewater treatmentwithout resorting to costly, energy-intensive and environmentally harmful practices such as desalination of sea water. Additionally, it is possible to use nature-based solutions that capture and infiltrate water naturally to support overall ecosystem health, which, in turn, can help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis, among a myriad of additional benefits. In this way we can ensure the human right to water so that people can stay safe and healthy, and respect the rights of nature ensuring the prosperity of our ecosystems.

Do what you can when you can – Stay informed

The issues of California’s dwindling water supply, increasing demand, and uncertain reliability can seem overwhelming. But we are not powerless in the face of this climate crisis. We can all take it Climate challenge do what we can when we can. Start today and focus on ‘what we’re learning’ – or whatever resonates with you. You can stay informed. Heal the Bay can help.

Over the next six months, Heal the Bay will explore what it means to live in an arid state and what climate change, drought and aridification mean for our water future. We will share solutions and opportunities to advance water efficiency to become more water efficient at home and as a community through collective and regional action. Stay tuned for more content! Waiting…

💥ASK THE EXPERTS: What do you want to know? Ask our staff scientists any questions you have about aridification, drought and water conservation. Your answer could be featured in an upcoming Heal the Bay blog post or video.



Written by Annelisa Moe. As Heal the Bay’s Water Quality Scientist, Annelisa helps keep Los Angeles water clean and safe by advocating for comprehensive, science-based water quality regulation and enforcement. Prior to joining the Heal the Bay team, she worked with the Regional Water Quality Control Board on the Underground Storage Tank Program and the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program.

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